The busy alleys of the historical centre of Athens dominate the interest of visitors and locals alike, and only a few people venture into exploring the mysterious beauty of other Athenian neighbourhoods. Yet, the wealth in history and art that can be discovered there is often overwhelming, reminding the amateur seeker that every corner of Greece contains several narratives, captured in a condensed form of elusive designs that are often difficult to see or understand.
Such is the case of Mets neighbourhood which extends on the green slopes of Ardittos hill, a short distance from the Temple of Olympian Zeus and behind the Panathenaic Stadium – the only stadium in the world built entirely of marble and the one that hosted the opening and closing ceremonies of the first modern Olympic Games in 1896.
The best way to start one’s exploration is from the area around the Saint Fotini church. Although one will meet there more cats – the size of a small lynx – rather than people, this is a region of profound historical importance, crowded with ancient temples, shrines, or churches, and enriched with numerous legends and tales.
Located next to the lush banks of the Ilissos river (one of the three rivers of Athens, now having disappeared underground), the church was erected on what is believed to be the ruins of an ancient temple of the Goddess Hekate. A basilica built in 1872, it is dedicated to Saint Fotini (a Samaritan woman who gave water to Christ next to Jacob’s well) and even hosts in a prominent nook a piece of rock coming from that well. The church also celebrates on the 9th of July a more recent martyr, Paknanas. He was a gardener in Athens in the mid-18th century, and, accused by the Turks of transferring gunpowder to the Greeks, he was executed by the columns of the Temple of Olympian Zeus, where he is also buried.
Nearby, towards the direction of the Temple of Olympian Zeus, there are the few remains of an enormous church, the Basilica of Ilissos, built in the 5th c AD. It is dedicated to the Martyr Leonidis since his relics had been buried in a small crypt there called The Martyrdom. It was precisely the size of the pilgrim crowds that imposed the need for the erection of the temple. As such, it is the only church of the Early Christian period that was not constructed on the ruins of an ancient sanctuary. Today, entrance to the site seems prohibited, but the church’s beautiful mosaics have been transferred to the Byzantine and Christian Museum. The neighbouring temple of Saint Fotini follows the specific architectural style in remembrance of this early Christian basilica.
On the other side of Sant Fotini, there is a shrine dedicated to god Pan. Pan was the god of the wild, connected with nature, herds, and rustic music – a companion to shepherds and nymphs. According to tradition, his homeland is found in the pastures of Arcadia, in Peloponnese – though, as per another, less known legend, he may have been the son of Penelope, Odysseus’ wife, who, while being pursued by the suitors, decided one night to sleep with all of them and the boy born out of this nocturnal adventure was called “Pan”, which in Greek means “everyone”. The Athenians worshipped the god, especially since, they believed, he was the one who on the eve of the famous Marathon battle, penetrated the Persian camp creating confusion and havoc – which, ever since, is called “panic”. The shrine is just a rocky outcrop with a small natural cave and two perpendicular faces hewn in antiquity, where an indistinct relief of God Pan was detected in 1911 (hence the belief that the shrine was dedicated to Pan). However, it may have been the shrine of the Nymphs and the River God Acheloos, with a spring of cold water, a plane tree and a willow, where, as Plato writes, sat Socrates and Phaedrus during their philosophical walk. Today, it can be accessed through a tiny path almost overtaken by acanthus bushes (the ones that inspired the Corinthian-style capital of the columns). The perceived drawing of Pan has been smoothened off the surface of the stone, and the rock was almost blown up during the construction of the surrounding roads.
This spot of land around Saint Fotini was of idyllic beauty: there were playful waterfalls, a small island called Vatrahonisi (frog island) in the middle of the riverbed, and a refreshing pool of water known as Vouthoulas. Until the end of the 19th century, it was a popular area for swimming, while it also served as a romantic rendezvous point for young couples. It is said that, during the Greek Independence War, the rebels were replenishing their ammunition supplies there, so, for several decades afterwards, many malefactors or outcasts used the area as their haunt, turning it into a dangerous neighbourhood in the evenings.
The peaceful and unspoiled ambience of this corner, in connection with the energy of the river, had attracted men since the ancient times, hence the number of shrines found in the proximity (known in their entirety as the Parilissia Temples). Among them, we can identify the Temple of Delfinios Apollon (4rth century BC) and the temple of Cronos and Rhea (2nd c. BC), while according to the legends, this area hosted the tomb of mythical Deukalion (the father of all Greeks), the palace of Aegeas (father to Thisseas, the Athenian hero who killed the Minotaur in Crete), and the entrance to the Underworld for the souls of the dead.
Crossing over the bridge constructed in 1852-54 during the reign of King Otto, we head towards the residential area of Mets neighbourhood, passing first by the remains of the temple of Artemis Agrotera, one of the most important shrines of the Classical era. Built in the 5th c BC by the architect Callicrates (one of the architects of the Parthenon), it was of a style similar to the Temple of Athena Nike, and was connected to a prior shrine dedicated to Demetra and Daughter, where ceremonies were taking place for the preparation of the initiates to the Eleusinian Mysteries. Much later, the temple was turned into a Christian church under the name Panagia stin Petra (Virgin of the Rock) and was finally destroyed in 1778 by the voevoda (governor) of Athens, Hadji Ali Haseki, so that its rocks are used as construction material for the erection of the Haseki wall.
Mets neighbourhood was uninhabited during the Ottoman times and started to get populated from the 19th century onwards, initially as an entertainment district with a romantic and artistic ambience. It is believed that it is named after a beer parlour that had opened there (the first in Athens) which, in turn, was named after the city of Metz in northeastern France. Today, it is often tenderly called the “Montmartre of Athens”, due to the presence of an intellectual elite (especially artists) who chose this district as their home.
The streets are quiet and picturesque, while the architecture of most buildings has kept a nostalgic tone of the past, following a neoclassic style with earthly colours. The residents of the area resisted the construction frenzy of the 1960s during which most of the beautiful houses of Athens were demolished in favor of big apartment buildings that, on the surface, seemed to offer many comforts, in reality, though, they were erected in an anarchic mode, depriving the city and its citizens from the aspired quality of life. The inhabitants of Mets decided to make this quality their priority and, on their initiative, without any law reinforcement, they respected the terrain of the hill and the environment, maintaining a neighbourhood that, today, acts as a model of what Athens could look like if everybody had followed their example.
Strolling around, one will pass by the neoclassic house of Nikos Koundouros (a famous Greek film director) which was a meeting point for many artists in the 1960s; the residence of the diplomat Alexandros Xidis – a magnificent example of architecture that managed to turn the disadvantages of the plot and location into unique benefits; and the apartment building on the junction of Archimidous and Domboli streets – a construction of the 1980s which re-invented the concept of the apartment building, adding luxury but, still, respecting the colour of the neighbourhood.
Inevitably, one will end up in front of the gates to the First Cemetery of Athens. For the uninformed, it may seem like a morbid destination; however, it is an open-air art museum, hosting some of the best sculptures of the 20th century. Many Athenians enjoy ambling in the alleys, observing the statues and the historical evidence revealed through the last residences of some of the most prominent personalities of modern Greece. This visit, though, deserves an elaborate analysis and more will be shared soon, in another article.
Photo credits: © Konstantina Sakellariou (unless otherwise stated)
To explore Athens in more details, complement this article with a visit to Iliou Melathron: one of Athens’ most beautiful mansions, the House of Katakouzenos, the Forgotten Trails of the Ottoman Era, and a tour to my seven favourite churches.